From Fairytale to Roadkill: Animals in Art
Conference paper by Stuart Evans
Fine Art masters student Stuart Evans recently gave a paper at a conference on ’Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society’ at Exeter University. He discussed issues surrounding an exhibition that he curated for the School of Art Ceramics Gallery at Aberystwyth Art Centre titled ‘We Spirited Creatures’; an exhibition of figurative ceramics and taxidermy. The exhibition contained images of animals from collections held at Ceredigion Museum and Aberystwyth University.
As art interventions go, this was an ambitious attempt at putting across various ideas about human and animal relationships through art. Three artists came together to investigate how to communicate connections about what it means to be a human animal. By combining objects, sound and poetry they filled the gallery with ‘conversational pieces’ which question how people think about and use animals. Commenting on inviting artists to curate exhibitions, Emeritus Professor Moira Vincentelli feels ‘the strategy is one that is used increasingly by museums and galleries to cast new light over existing collections and disrupts conventional classifications and styles of display.'
Evans, who is also display designer at Ceredigion Museum explains that ‘we came together to explore the way in which humans and animals live together on this small planet. Our relationship with animals is one of shared needs and mutual coexistence. What emerged was a display of ‘suggested conversations’ between placed objects together with poems in Welsh and English and a series of choreographed sounds.'
Elin ap Hywel, poet and translator, used her skills to produce new works for the show. Interpretive labels were not used in the display. The only text to appear was Elin’s poems and single words floating on the glass display cases. Sound artist Anna Evans produced an ongoing work titled ‘The Creation.’ This consisted of religious chanting, snippets of scientific theory, animal calls and Darwinian theory together with recorded personal reminiscence and experience from visitors to the exhibition.
The taxidermy was mainly from the local museum and produced by the Hutchings family of Aberystwyth during late Victorian period. Taxidermy was very popular at this time and this family's work is still highly sought after by collectors. Hutchings are considered to be works of the finest quality and show the animals in attitude. It raises issues about how people viewed animals at that time. By combining the taxidermy with contemporary ceramics raises questions are raised. Various themes are addressed, such as the early representation of animals in cave painting, religious imagery through stories such as the Garden of Eden, Adam Naming the Animals, Noah and the Flood through to animals dressed as humans in fairy tales and mythological beasts in stories such as Beauty and the Beast.
Notions of animals thinking are raised in object combinations such as the guardians of property and time, where animals are shown alongside such items as old keys and clocks, suggesting that they have some recognition of the concept of ownership as well as the past, present and future.
Sexual issues are brought to the surface in the combination of ceramic dancing beasts in a Ruth Barret Danes half-human, half-animal piece and the classical fawn caressing a naked female combined with a fur stole and crocodile handbag. Both these accessories suggest the glamour of using animal skin to attract attention to the opposite sex during human courtship.
The use of animal skins and the presence of death in the display, shown explicitly in the photographs of roadkill and the print by Julian Meredith of a real barn owl, remind us of our own mortality. Whether we accept this inevitable destiny does not prevent us from continually searching for meaning in our lives. Looking and studying animals is a good way to think and by doing this we hold a mirror up to our own lives.